India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), with the consummate ease that has become the rocket’s hallmark, placed the third Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) spacecraft into orbit in the early hours of Thursday 23 October. Over the years, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has steadily enhanced the capabilities of this rocket, which was originally developed to put remote sensing satellites into orbits so that it could carry heavier satellites than before, inject them into orbit with greater accuracy and take on a range of missions including launching the lunar probe, Chandrayaan-1, as well as the Mars Orbiter Mission. Its record of 27 consecutive successful flights is a tribute to the meticulous preparations and attention to every tiny detail that goes on behind the scenes before each launch. Indeed, the latest launch was postponed by almost a week in order to attend to a technical glitch that had cropped up.

The IRNSS constellation will give India guaranteed access to what has become a critical service in the present day – navigation satellite signals. America’s Global Positioning System (GPS), with worldwide coverage, is the leader in the field. Russia, for its part, established a similar capability with the Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS). But others worry about becoming wholly dependent on them for a service that is vital to military operations as well as in many civilian sectors. Europe is therefore in the process of putting its own constellation of Galileo navigation satellites in place. China is likewise creating the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System; a regional service has already been launched and it intends to achieve global coverage by around 2020.

Using its seven satellites, the IRNSS system will beam accurate navigation signals over India and up to 1,500 km from its borders. Three of those satellites have already been launched and ISRO plans to have the remaining satellites in place by the middle of next year. By adding four more satellites, India has the option to extend the area covered by its navigation system. Meanwhile, ISRO’s Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad has undertaken the development of receivers that can utilise the IRNSS signals and is also helping industry do the same. Early trials using these receivers are going to get under way. Efforts are also going into chipsets for portable devices that will utilise those signals. A market assessment carried out by a well-known consultancy company indicates that there is potentially a huge market available in the subcontinent. Turning this potential into reality is going to be a challenge, and ISRO will necessarily have to play a leadership role here.

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